Background Checks

The March 20th edition of the Denver Post included an article entitled “Fingerprint-based criminal background check legislation for Colorado health care professionals passes key hurdles.” In it, the writer commented,  “Spurred on by concerns that dangerous criminals are getting hired to care for ill, disabled and frail patients, legislation that would require fingerprint-based criminal background checks for health care professionals in Colorado passed key hurdles this month.”

The article also noted that Colorado is one of only six states that doesn’t require doctors to undergo criminal records checks for licensure and one of five that doesn’t have that requirement for nurses. Currently, Colorado operates on an “honor system,” where applicants are asked to divulge past criminal activity when they apply for a certificate or license. Those who already hold a license or certificate also are required to reveal arrests. If passed, some 160,000 healthcare workers already in the system would be required to submit to a fingerprint check.

It’s good that the Colorado legislature recognizes voluntary reporting of criminal “activity” is not a sufficient way to screen candidates. However, I wonder if they understand what a fingerprint check is going to reveal. At the most basic level, it will only confirm someone’s identity, if their fingerprints are already on file somewhere. At best, a fingerprint check might reveal that someone was arrested–but that’s all!

In most instances, a fingerprint check will not reveal the outcome of a charge, which may or may not have been filed. Not every arrest leads to an individual being charged with a crime.  Only when there is a conviction for the most serious crimes will a fingerprint check potentially disclose the outcome – and certainly not in every instance.  Furthermore, a fingerprint check will not reveal any disciplinary actions that an employer may have imposed on someone. Unless there is an arrest, fingerprints will likely not have been taken if someone was reprimanded. In addition, a fingerprint check will not reveal if a candidate for employment was fired from one or more previous jobs.

In short, requiring a fingerprint check for healthcare professionals will not necessarily ensure the safety of those in their care. There are an almost unlimited number of things that could put the ill or elderly at risk that will not be disclosed by a fingerprint check.

As with other situations in which vulnerable populations can be at risk from people who might harm them, a fingerprint check isn’t good enough to ensure anybody’s safety.  Let’s hope the legislature takes the law a step further and includes thorough background and reference checks in the requirements, as well.